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Ex-Roslyn air base veterans return Saturday

Village of East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz, right,

Village of East Hills Mayor Michael Koblenz, right, and Skip Hein, left, at the Village of East Hills Park and Pool, which now stands on the site of the former Roslyn Air National Guard Station. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Veterans who offered a somber salute to the closing Roslyn Air National Guard Station in 2000 plan to reunite there Saturday at what has become a vastly different site: the Park at East Hills.

The 52-acre former base, a casualty of the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure commission, is now home to the East Hills Village Hall and offers such amenities as an Olympic-sized pool, a large theater, and a dog park.

Skip Hein, who served at the base from 1965 through 1983, said he was struck by the transformation. It was akin to "going from the subways of Manhattan to the Hamptons and its beauty," he said.

Hein, 69, of St. James was one of the organizers of the reunion, pegged for Armed Forces Day and the first of its scale at the base since Transfer Day in 2000.

The U.S. Army leased the site in 1942. It had been part of the former 230-acre estate of Gold Coast financier Clarence Mackay. The New York Air National Guard operated the site until its closure.

It was poised for revitalization as a village-run country club when East Hills bought the land from the federal government for more than $3 million the year the base closed. It is now valued at more than $60 million, village officials said.

Thomas Ingargiola, 67, of Hampton Bays, hasn't seen some of his colleagues since the closure. "We had a great camaraderie between us," said Ingargiola, who served with the 152nd Tactical Air Control Center Squadron and the 274th Combat Communications Squadron. "I think about them all the time."

Some of the old buildings have been renovated, but others, such as a former caretaker's house and an office building on a hill, have been untouched. Mayor Michael Koblenz said they are asbestos-ridden and need to be removed.

Koblenz said he will have an old base truck waiting for the veterans, along with memorabilia he was intending for a time capsule. "I think they'll be impressed," he said.

The reunion has stirred mixed feelings about the base's closure and rebirth. "It's a very sad thing for me," Ingargiola said, adding that he approves of its repurposing as a village hub. "It's a tribute to the people that have gone by that they have some use for other people in the area."

After eight years in the U.S. Air Force, John Schnell moved to Commack with family but spent weekends at the base with the 152nd Tactical Control Group, flying missions over Europe and Vietnam. Schnell, 76, who later served in political posts with Suffolk County and has retired to Princeton Junction, N.J., was responsible for training National Guardsmen as air traffic controllers.

Schnell said the veterans should be remembered for their sacrifice. "They gave up a lot of their free time from their family."

Ingargiola said, "We were there to support the fighters."

Hein, who joined the base in 1965, during the Vietnam War, said his colleagues, many of whom were former pilots, provided key tactical support to units in the field.

"None of us were shot at in Roslyn; we were not facing any peril when we served there," he said. But he recalled, "It was the camaraderie of a military unit that drew us together."

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